FUNNY FLASHBACK: JANEANE GAROFALO

11 May

If there’s one thing I love as much as music, it’s comedy. And my family. And cookies, too. So that’s three things …

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some of my favorite comedians, and since I started a blog … I figure I can stick the ancient transcripts on here for the sake of posterity.

Here’s a 2001 chat I had with Janeane Garofalo.

What were the major hurdles you had to clear when starting to do comedy?

Well, I started in 1985, which was actually a great time to start. There was a big comedy boom starting at the time in the mid-eighties and lasted until the mid-nineties. The hurdles I had to clear were the same hurdles that any comic has to face, which is for the first couple of years, you’re just kind of sucky. You know, it takes a number of years before you really find your voice on stage, and your comfort level, and hecklers and terrible conditions. It’s like any person starting any new job, and that complete novice, neophyte status you have to get past. I also looked incredibly young. I was nineteen or twenty at the time, but I looked a lot younger. I was just like a real chubby college girl with a big sweater. And that was a huge problem for people who paid full ticket price and a two drink minimum, and were like, “What? I paid to see a guy with his blazer sleeves pushed up to the elbow, and not this kid.”

You didn’t have a Chess King sports coat?

No. I did not have a Just For Men sports coat on.

Marc Maron’s response to this question was that it took him awhile to go from faking fearlessness to actually being fearless.

Right. But I didn’t even do the faking part. I was just this very vulnerable personae on stage, which some crowds were sympathetic to, but in general human nature tends to pounce on the vulnerable one in the pack. Like I said, it just takes a few years, three years, sometimes even five years to gain confidence on stage.

Is there something about the beginning and intermediate stages of comedy that tend to deaden unique comic voices? I’m always intrigued by original comedians who manage to pass through that stage without giving up or killing themselves.

They say that your style chooses you rather than you choosing your style, though there are plenty of derivative comics who rip off other people’s styles. I didn’t really start doing well until after I moved out of the MC position. What I do doesn’t really lend itself to the position of MC, to performing in these little, short spurts. My conversational style is better in bigger doses. It’s not really joke-joke-joke, per se. And also, in the mid-eighties there was a much bigger emphasis on joke writing. Even though prior to that there had been your Mort Sahls, and your Lenny Bruces, and your Bill Hicks, so there was a place for conversational comedy. But during that boom, there was a much bigger emphasis on the joke teller. So being a college girl who wasn’t much of a joke writer didn’t work that well, but it especially didn’t work being the first person on the show, announcing the other acts and the drink specials.

Did you find yourself, in the beginning, trying to write jokes in a more standard format to fit in?

JG: Not so much in a standard format, but I did try and write jokes with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But then I realized I can’t really do things in that way. I really don’t have that discipline. I carry a notebook around with me all the time, and if something strikes me, I jot it down, and hope that it merges as an amusing nugget of some kind. But I just can’t sit down and say, “Ok, I’m going to write a joke about medicine,” or, “I’m going to write a joke about social security,” you know? I can’t really do that and never could.

Did you find yourself trying to fit a square peg in to a round hole?

Probably. Probably. I’m sure I did that a few times before realizing I would be more successful just bombing on my own terms. Bombing while trying to be someone else is even more pathetic.

I know you first performed in Rhode Island, but where did you go from there? Where was the first place you were really trying to make a go of it?

The Comedy Workshop in Houston and also Boston. I started getting a lot of support in Houston. I started getting a lot of positive feedback from the other comedians and from the management at The Comedy Workshop in Houston. And I wasn’t really accustomed to positive feedback in Rhode Island or Boston. I was going back and forth. I was living in Boston, but my parents lived in Houston, so I would visit them there and spend stretches of time there. Then I moved to Houston for about a year or two because it looked like a good community for stand-up, and I got a lot of stand-up work. The I moved to L.A. where I got a lot more positive feedback and eventually got some acting jobs. Then in 1994 I moved to New York.

What did you learn being in Texas at that time, working and interacting with Bill Hicks?

I didn’t really interact with him. I only worked with him a couple of times, and got to see him perform a lot of times. But what I learned from him was that I wanted to try and take real stories and real narratives and say something of value in the way that he did. I mean, don’t just tell inane jokes that aren’t even true about shit that didn’t even happen to you. He would never do that. He told real stories about things that happened to him, and about politics, current affairs, the news, pop culture, and all these things, and he would do it in a funny way, but also in a way where you would go, “Wow, that’s an interesting perspective.” I felt like I was on that path anyway, but nowhere near as good as Bill Hicks. Nowhere near as good as Bill Hicks. But I was on that track, and that’s what I was responding to, and that’s how I want people to respond to me.

What were your initial experiences with the grim reality of comedy clubs?

Most of the other comics you see, on the road and in clubs, are terrible. And the audiences are not . . . your average comedy audience at your average comedy road gig is not the most sophisticated audience in the world, and that can be very discouraging. But then you will come across people like Bill Hicks, like David Cross, like Laura Kightlinger, and you’re like, “Yes! This is great.” And, there’s always a handful of people in each audience that appreciate it, and you owe it to those people who are more discerning, and who care about what goes in their ear. There are people who have better tastes in comedy and in what they’re hearing, and you can say, well, that’s just opinion, but it isn’t when you have a comedian who just works blue and is offensive who is doing really well. That’s not just opinion; that’s taste, and people who have a more discerning taste are not going to respond to the blowhard guy. But when there is someone like Bill Hicks on stage, the handful of people who are open to it deserve to be catered to, I think, while most of the time the lowest common denominator is catered to.

If you hadn’t run across these people showing you that you were on the right track, do you think you would have stuck with it? Did you have that kind of love for it, or could it have been a situation like, “You know what, this really isn’t what I thought it was.”

I don’t think I had any illusions that it was going to be great all the time. And also, I didn’t have any fall back job options. It was never like, “Well, if I can’t do comedy, I’ll just do this.” I never had a Plan B. Even at the times when I hated it the most, I was like, “Well, if you quite, what are you going to do? Go back to working in the shoe store? Go back to being a bike messenger?” It was like, I don’t care that I work in a clothing store, because I’m really going to be a stand-up. So there was no quitting option.

You’ve been talented and-or lucky enough to reach certain plateau’s in performing stand-up, and to then reach the next plateau. Was there ever a point where you thought, “Wow, I’ve made it this far, most people don’t ever get this far, this may be as far as I go”?

I thought that headlining a show as stand-up on the road, and not only that but headlining at clubs where people actually came to see you, I thought that was the pinnacle of success, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a comedian that people would see my name in the paper and say, “Yes, let’s make a plan, let’s get the tickets, and let’s go.” That to me was what I wanted, but I didn’t really achieve that without the acting, unfortunately. I achieved a degree of success in acting before I achieved what I wanted in stand-up. So that always sort of disappointed me, because I wanted to be a stand-up, and I was never like, “Wow, I want to be an actor.” But it just so happened that I got some acting work, which brings you recognition, which brings people in to the comedy clubs. I guess you have to think, “Well, whatever gets the people in to the clubs.” I mean, The Truth About Cats and Dogs isn’t a movie that I like, but a lot of people liked it, and if they then come to see me do stand-up, then so be it.

I’m thinking more about making it to, say, a Letterman appearance and thinking, “Wow, most comedians never make it this far.”

Well, there was a time when being on Carson was the ultimate. And that was all a comedian needed, and that was the ultimate achievement, and that was enough to want, to do Carson regularly and do work stand-up on the road. Today it would be the same as being a regular on Letterman or Leno. To be a comedian where people hear your going to be on the show and they think, “Yeah! I’m going to stay up and watch that!”, that’s amazing. I would love that.

I think to someone outside of comedy, if they heard someone they know would be on Conan, they would think, “Wow! They’ve made it!” Meanwhile there are 200 people who’ve done it and you can’t name five of them off the top of your head.

Right, but then sometimes you can, though. There’s people like Zach Galifianakis or Mitch Hedberg who go on those shows and it really resonates. They have these sets and people say the next day, “Did you see that guy on Conan?” And it takes on a life of its own, like when Zach Galafinakis did Letterman . . .

That was my first introduction to him, and I talked about it for days. So now, whenever I hear he’s going to be on Conan or something, I’m watching.

Right! And it worked for him. He got like five movies from that one appearance, and it exploded. He was inundated with offers to do road gigs, and he was immediately bumped up to headliner, all kinds of things like that. So it still can happen, when it resonates with people. And that’s because Zach stands out, and he’s doing something that is good and different. And unfortunately, even the people who book these shows, they will deliberately go for a middle-of-the-road comedian, and it makes no sense.

Do you recall the first time you heard the phrase “alternative comedy”?

Yeah, I think it was around the time that saying “alternative music” was a big thing. It’s just a catch-all phrase that literally means nothing. I mean, what do you mean “alternative” comedy? It’s just a journalistic construct to describe something different than the blazer-wearing comedians from the eighties. And if there hadn’t been alternative rock at the time, no one would have come up with the phrase alternative comedy. The people who were performing in alternative spaces, like Marc Maron, David Cross, Laura Kightlinger, and even Zach Galifianakis, were the more cerebral, conversational comics. Because your average, hack-ey joke teller is going to bomb in an alternative space. Because outside of a comedy club proper, it just doesn’t fly. So these alternative spaces also started attracting a different audience, a more cerebral and patient audience. And they would just be the type who would shun Johnny Stand-Up, because they had been burned before in comedy clubs proper, where they had paid eighteen bucks plus a two drink minimum to see three guys that insulted their intelligence. So then, the fallout from that was, until the few years, the comedy clubs devolved in to, like I said, literally the lowest common denominator. It was people who weren’t offended by the crap they were seeing, people who wanted to see a lot of blue humor, who wanted to hear a lot of obscenities, where it was one outrageous thing after another, vaguely racist, vaguely sexist humor. It got to the point where it was almost a dangerous place to be if you were doing anything but a loud, in-your-face kind of comedy.

Did you have trouble being booked in to a standard club because you were too cerebral?

I don’t think anyone would say cerebral. They would say shitty. Cerebral? Believe me, that’s giving me way too much credit. I had trouble being booked in to comedy clubs because the bookers and a lot of the audience thought I sucked. It had nothing to do with cerebral. It was just, “She flat-out sucks.”

But how frustrating is that, to have a certain degree of success but to be rejected by the institution?

It’s very frustrating, but the thing is, as far as the bookers and some audiences are concerned, I am not funny. Not funny. That’s all that it is. They would be mad at me for claiming to be conversational or cerebral. There are a bunch of comics, even to this day, who would be furious if they were listening to this conversation. There are comics who believe that me, Marc Maron, David Cross, are just plain shitty comics. There are comics who have been around for a number of years, who I am friendly with, who cannot stand my stand-up, who feel that people like Marc Maron and myself have ruined it. And it has nothing to do with who’s cerebral and who’s conversational. They just think that we flat out suck at joke writing and joke telling.

More interesting than people like Marc Maron and yourself not liking the term “alternative comedy” are the comedians, who are not associated with it at all, who hate the very idea, who think it’s a bastion of people who cannot tell a joke, who must have a notebook to look at on stage at all times . . .

It’s so strange to be criticized for things like that, because it’s like, “What? There are rules? There are comedy rules?” And I would say unto them, I have enough new material coming in to my show that I use a notebook. It’s not like I am memorizing by rote this same act that I perform day after day after day, which a lot of comics do. They don’t have any turnover of material. And part of the stage experience I like to have with an audience is, “This is new. I just thought of this. What do you think of this?” It’s a work in progress. To criticize a comedian for having a notebook is so strange to me, because it’s like criticizing an accountant for using a certain kind of computer, or . . .

Like ragging on a guitarist for having a pedals.

Right! I’ve actually heard people say, “Oh, that’s bullshit, she has a notebook on stage.” And I find that to be so strange.

There are clubs that won’t allow it, at all. And then you look at Mitch Hedberg, who always has notes on stage . . .

Richard Lewis, George Carlin, Albert Brooks, all use notes on stage. And you know what? The people that criticize me will not say word one about the people I just mentioned. Somehow I’m the only one who gets criticized for it, and I don’t know why that is. The only time I ever hear criticism about having a notebook on stage is when it refers to me.

Somehow you’ll have to wear it as a badge of honor.

I guess so.

I always thought as the alternative comedy scene, for lack of a better term, to be short of like comedy going from “The Twist” towards “White Rabbit.” It’s just an evolution of the form.

True, but you could also say that Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl or The Compass Players or SCTV were alternative. So, it’s always been there. It’s just TV sometimes chooses to portray the most middle of the road stuff, and the masses also tend to gravitate towards the most middle of the road stuff. But a lot of the stuff that I do is middle of the road. Very middle of the road. Extremely middle of the road, you could say. A lot of the pop culture stuff I do or personal stuff I talk about, it’s very middle of the road. It’s just that maybe the way it’s presented isn’t as middle of the road. But then, some of the stuff I talk about is not middle of the road at all, so who knows, you know?

I don’t mean this in any way to demean your success or indicate you haven’t earned it, because that’s not how I feel, but when you’re on Letterman or Conan, and you realize most comedians never make it that far, do you ever think, “How did I get this? How did I slip in?”

Oh, I have no idea either. It’s one of those things that for every comedian you see on TV, there are twenty others who should have been in that spot. I have never, not in a million years, ever thought of myself as a particularly great stand-up. I’m like, “Oh my God, I am embarrassed that I am here right now and Amy Sedaris or Amy Poehler is not,” you know? But what can you do, you know?

No reason to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Right. But I remain very well aware that I have achieved a level of success that there are at least seventy-five other comedians who deserve more. But then, I also think, “Well, I’m glad it’s me as opposed to so-and-so.”

Is it difficult to work on new material now, in that audience knows who you are, and accepts you from the start? I mean, can an audience be too willing to laugh?

You have that, but at the same time, you have a lot of people who are just as willing to say, “Ewww, I’m disappointed!” They are very willing to laugh at you from the start, but the bar has been raised, and they expect a great deal.

How does that factor in to deciding what new material will stay in your set?

Well, I have to just keep doing it the way I’ve always done it. I opened for Yo La Tengo last night, and that’s a tough crowd. And with that, there is no kind of “they’re going to accept me” thing, no way. Yo La Tengo crowd? No fucking way. If anything quite the opposite. They’re like, “Why the hell are we seeing stand-up in front of our band?” Also, I do 30, 40, 60 road gigs a year. Colleges, clubs, theaters, and I do about an hour and ten minutes, and there is no “We’re just going to accept this” thing. It’s still the same exact process for a comedian no matter how successful or unsuccessful you are. You have to be as good as you can be for that hour and ten minutes, and some nights they’ll like you and some night they don’t. It really doesn’t change.

You’ve mentioned before you have an increasing difficulty with college crowds.

Because I’m thirty-seven.

It is just age?

I think a lot of it is age. There are less and less things that we have as common reference points. And also, when I talk about media events at the age of thirty-seven, you can’t expect a 17, 18, 19, 20 year old college student to share your fervor, you know? And with news related items, you can’t count on them to be with you on that. That’s the difficulty.

But you’re still able to perform for college crowds with success?

So far. There are times when you can just tell, “Oh, they’re not going to care about that.” But you know what? I actually have to do another phoner now. Is it 2:30 now?

Ok, yeah. Let me just ask, what was your favorite book of 2001?

Gosh. Well, like everyone else, I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”, which I thought was an incredible book, but boy, was it depressing. Then I actually read his favorite book, which is called “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox. Let’s see . . . I’ve been reading a lot of meditations by stoic philosophers. Other than that, go with “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox.

Excellent. We can end on that. I appreciate your time.

No problem, no problem.

Well, you’ve got my number, so if you’re bored when you get to Richmond, give me a call, and my wife and I will show you the town.

(laughs) Ok, sounds good.

We’ll grab some dinner.

Sounds like a plan.

Ok, thanks, Janeane.

Bye.

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